Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951) is now a relatively neglected musical theatre artist; and yet, once upon a time, particularly in the 1920s, he was amongst the most celebrated of Broadway musical composers The film Deep in My Heart (1954), directed by film musical master Stanley Donen, is a Hollywood ‘musical bio-pic’ based on the life of Sigmund Romberg.
The ‘bio-pic’ is a sub-genre of filmic ‘historical drama’, which remains the primary genre in world cinema. One only has to look at the respective film awards from across the world to clearly see that most ‘Best Film’ awards have gone to ‘historical drama’ films. The musical ‘bio-pic’ is curious genre, wildly different in form and structure. Some attempt to cover and entire life of a particular musical artists, and some focus only part. A number of ‘musical bio-pics’ are based on successful theatre musicals, others are original film works, In all cases, however, the popular ‘hits’ of this artist is interweaved into the narrative – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Part of this challenge involves whether or not the particular song advances the narrative, and/or reveals something specific about the artist.
The most successful original works include Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) which is based on the life of Broadway artist George M, Cohan, and brilliantly portrayed by James Cagney; Alfred E. Green’s The Jolson Story (1946) and Henry Levin’s Jolson Sings Again (1949) with Larry Parks as Al Jolson.
In more modern times there are Sidney J. Furie’s Lady Sings the Blues (1972) about Billie Holiday, beautifully played by Diana Ross; Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter(1980) about Loretta Lynn, played by Sissy Spacek; Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) about Gilbert and Sullivan, played respectively by Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent.
In the 21st Century we have James Mangnold’s Walk the Line (2005) about the early life of Johnny Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon; and Stephen Freares delightful Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) with Meryl Streep in the title role, as the woman labelled ‘the worst opera singer in the world’.
Films based on Broadway musicals include William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968) with Barbara Streisand repeating her performance as Fanny Brice, catapulting Streisand to international stardom. There are also a number of ‘made for television’ films and mini-series, such as Gypsy (1993) based on the Broadway musical of the same name about Gypsy Rose Lee, with Bette Midler as Lee’s mother, Rose; and Life with Judy Garland: Me and my Shadows (2001) with Judy Davis giving a mesmerizing and award winning performance as Judy Garland. There are many others, but these are my personal favourites.
Deep in My Heart is the fourth in a series of ‘musical bio-pics’ that MGM made in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The others include – Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) about Jerome Kern, Words and Music (1948) about Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and Three Little Words (1950) about ‘Tin Pan Alley’ team Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. All these films are highly fictionalized, sanitized and sentimental, to the point of absurdity, treatments of the respective real artists lives. However, they all worth watching as these films contain spectacular musical numbers featuring the greatest MGM musical stars, including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney. As one critic in Variety wrote about Till the Clouds Roll By – ‘Why quibble about the story?’.
I love the works by Sigmund Romberg. Deep in My Heart may not be historical accurate, nor is it particularly dramatically interesting, but the songs and the musical sequences are thrilling. They don’t necessarily capture the magical potency they have in the theatre, but as a tribute to Romberg, which is what the film essentially is, they are truly excellent. Furthermore, they are performed by great musical artists, including Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Ann Blyth, Jane Powell, Howard Keel – and more. There is a wonderful musical number, ‘I Love to go Swimmin’ with Wimmin’, with Gene Kelly and his brother Fred Kelly, the only time they appeared together on-screen.
The film ‘stars’, however, are Jose Ferrer as Sigmund Romberg and Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, who was Romberg’s friend and wrote the book and libretto for The Student Prince (1924), Romberg’s most successful musical/operetta. Jose Ferrer is a terrific actor who rose to fame with his Academy Award winning performance of Cyrano de Bergerac (1950). Merle Oberon is one of the screens great ‘professional beauties’, and is also an excellent actress. Whilst Jose Ferrer is a bit hammy and theatrical as Romberg, in the most delightful way, it is Merle Oberon who brings real gravitas, heart and soul to the film. Her final scene is extremely moving.
Deep in My Heart follows the rise of Sigmund Romberg as a young ‘Tin Pan Alley’ composer in New York who prefers the more classical repertoire from his homeland Vienna than the contemporary and popular ‘ragtime’. After meeting Sam Harris he succumbs to popular tastes and writes a string of ‘hits’ with the hope that he will eventually be able to do his own preferred work. This he finally achieves with the production of Maytime (1917) and Blossom Time (1921), quickly followed by his masterworks The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928). He then lapses into relative obscurity, no longer deemed ‘fashionable’, Finally, however, after the death of his dear friend Dorothy Donnelly, and with the encouragement of his wife, he does a special concert at Carnegie Hall that honours him, his music and his legacy.
His legacy – yes! Romberg is perhaps still considered ‘unfashionable’, nonetheless, his work is still highly relevant. His highly romantic songs prefigure those one can find in the works of Andrew Lloyd Weber, as well as Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil. These musical theatre artists, as well as Romberg fall into those works that bridge formal Viennese operetta and conventional jazz and pop orientated musical theatre. Romberg’s work is just as valid in musical theatre training as are the works of Gilbert and Sullivan – maybe even better – as they provide a ‘classical’ foundation for the singing voice that is perfect for modern musical theatre.
So why is Romberg not done? I know from bitter experience that in a number of cases in regard to training I had to insist that Romberg was included in respective exercises and showings. This was somewhat reluctantly agreed too, but with a shaking of heads and sense of patronizing and indulging the ‘old man’. However, in all cases, once one of Romberg’s songs was performed the magic happened. They have their own unique and dramatic potency that can enrapt an audience. Rather than simplistic, overt sentimentality they demand considerable depth and technical skill. This is best exemplified by ‘Deep in my heart, dear’ from The Student Prince, ‘The Desert Song’, ‘Romance’ and ‘The Sabre Song’ from The Desert Song, and ‘Softly, as a Morning Sunshine’ and ‘Lover, Come Back to Me’ from The New Moon.
‘Lover, Come Back to Me’ is quite rightly one of the most important and wonderful popular songs from the 20th Century, evident in the many past and modern artists who have recorded their own versions of this beautiful song. Furthermore, there are the thrilling energetic numbers, such as ‘The Drinking Song’ in The Student Prince, ‘The Riff Song’ and ‘The Military Marching Song’ in The Desert Song, and ‘Stouthearted Men’ in The New Moon. It is perhaps difficult for young people to appreciate that when ‘The Drinking Song’ was first performed in 1924 its enormous popularity was almost regarded as revolutionary in ‘Prohibition’ America. It is still a wonderful and powerful ‘show-stopper’.
This prejudice against Romberg, however, I fear will remain – until a visionary producer/director comes along and re-invents the work in the same way that Joseph Papp re-invented Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in 1981, turning that show into a modern mega-hit. This could easily happen to The Desert Song, as it could with another similar work from the same period – Rudolf Friml’s The Vagabond King (1925). All of Romberg’s major musicals were turned into films. Whilst these films may endorse the ‘unfashionable’ opinion of Romberg, nonetheless, they are all we currently have as a record of these once extremely popular works – plus Stanley Donen’s Deep in My Heart. There are also, however, numerous recordings by past and modern singers, classical and popular, who at the very least are savvy and clever enough to appreciate the power and potency of the works of Sigmund Romberg.